Sunday, January 3, 2016

Reading China's Big Changes in 'Little Rice'

Review by Bill Doughty

Shanghai at night.
Like his landmark "Here Comes Everybody" (Penguin Press, 2008), Clay Shirky begins "Little Rice: Smartphones, Xiaomi, and the Chinese Dream" (Columbia Global Reports, 2015) with a story about searching for a phone.

This time Professor Shirky is the one looking. What he finds in a Shanghai subway station mall – and the discoveries it reveals – are captured in this slim book about China, a country "open to business but closed to criticism."

Xiaomi (pronounced "show" as in "shower" and mi as in "me") makes smartphones and is compared by some as the Apple of China. How do smartphones, social media and access to information mesh in the "Middle (Central) Kingdom"?

Using Xiaomi and the phone as a platform, Shirky writes about China's evolution especially since the passing of communism and rise of autocratic capitalism. "Beijing wants a country whose citizens enjoy a high degree of economic freedom, a high degree of personal freedom, and a low degree of political freedom."

Using the market, Deng Xiaoping led China away from the devastating policies of Mao Zedong, in which tens of millions of Chinese died from famine. Poverty "plummeted in a single generation, from 84 percent in 1981 to 13 percent by 2008," from "bare subsistence to broad comfort."

President Xi Jingling during a summit visit to Washington D.C. in September 2015.
In the face of growing wealth and income inequality President Xi Jinping oversees the current Chinese Dream, Shirky writes. The dream is tied to better communication, transportation and housing, "very much like the American one," where "if you work hard, your life will improve, and that improvement will include material comfort of a home and a car."
"This market-supported bargain has worked better than almost anyone expected, but the days when the rising tide really did lift all boats, and where the economic tide was rising consistently quickly, are now ending. The Chinese Dream is Xi's attempt to deal with the end of the easy growth. The moderately prosperous society he is proposing to (comprehensively) build is a way of trying to deflate the rising expectations of the middle class for both marked economic and political improvement. These are all entries in his longer-term goal of bringing China's single-party system into some sort of self-governing norm, while at the same time convincing the Chinese masses to accept a slowing economy and significant income inequality."
Clay Shirky at a TED Talks presentation.
Shirky's "Little Rice" (the literal definition of Xiaomi), follows insights he revealed in "Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity In a Connected Age" (Penguin Press, 2010) about collaboration, innovation, intrinsic motivation and civic engagement.

Shirky riffs on human nature, a new drive for quality and innovation in China, and the role of smartphones in society.
"Xiaomi also means something for how the world will get connected. Mobile phones are the most broadly desired category of complex goods in the world, beating out their only rivals, cars and televisions, by a country kilometer. The mobile phone is also becoming the universal source of connectivity for most of the world's population, increasingly the gateway to every form of content other than paintings, and to every form of commerce other than haggling. Thanks to the mobile phone, the developing world, and therefore a majority of the human population, has gotten connected in the last twenty years. In the next ten, a majority of them will move from simple phones to real networked computers. Though Apple invented the smartphone, and Samsung spread it, it is Xiaomi who showed the world how to create a defensible market between luxurious and crappy, and to scale up to meet the rising demand of the rapidly expanding and increasingly global middle class."
New York University library in Shanghai.
Shirky, who teaches at New York University, Shanghai, says we are experiencing a "golden age of writing about China." He provides a list of "further readings" at the end of "Little Rice."

Evan Osno's "Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China" (FSG, 2014). "This is simply the best book on China today."

Peter Hessler's "Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present" (Harper, 2006) and "Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory."

James Fallows's "Postcards from Tomorrow Square: Reports from China" (Vintage, 2008) and "China Airborne" (Pantheon, 2012).

Ezra Vogel's "Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China" (Belknap Press, 2011).

Jonathan Spence's "The Search for Modern China" (Norton, 1990).

Harvard University's ten-part online class by professors Peter Bol and William Kirby, and narrated by Christopher Lydon, "China" available at

Shaun Rein's "The End of Copycat China: The Rise of Creativity, Innovation, and Individualism in Asia" (Wiley, 2014).

Edward Tse's "China's Disruptors: How Alibaba, Xiaomi, Tencent, and Other Companies are Changing the Rules of Business" (Portfolio, 2015).

Susan Shirk's "Changing Media, Changing China" (Oxford University Press, 2010).

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